Theater for Barbarians

Portland productions of Greek theater classics tell us more about contemporary America than ancient Greece


In the midst of her Medea-like rage, I attempted to calm the beautiful, passionate Greek mother of my teen-aged piano student. “Stella!” I snapped, “I am trying to keep you from killing your son and feeding him to his father for dinner tonight!”

We laughed. But we also acknowledged the unfettered emotional intensity impossible for Greeks to suppress. Family killings in retribution for other family killings (and curses) come alive in Greek mythology and Greek drama because Greeks feel viscerally/violently, and express it to each other cleanly, graphically, without shame. There are no hidden meanings, there is no irony. There are consequences for our unmitigated impulsive behaviors and in Greek theater they play out Quentin Tarantino brutal and David Mamet blunt.

We probably can’t replicate the inside of another time and culture’s heads. That’s okay, because for me, it’s fascinating insight into our own when we try. This season, I’ve seen several Portland adaptations of Greek classics that revealed insights into 20th and 21st century American culture via their contrast with the approaches and emotions of the Greek originators of theater as we know it. And last week, I finally found one that gets closer to the Greeks!

Antigone 2.0

In last fall’s The Antigone Project, Profile Theater gave us five contemporary writers’ skits inspired by Sophocles’s Antigone story.

1. Hang Ten by Karen Hartman — a fun fast opener with lots of energy about surfer girls and guy falling in love. Kind of like early Aaron Sorkin dialogue.

2. Medallion by Tanya Barfield — A mother seeks some sort of remembrance for her dead son’s sacrifice from an angst-ridden Colonel Klink.

3. Antigone Arke by Caridad Svich — Cool rope trick. The concept of setting the story as a virtual experience — watching an actress hologramming Antigone imprisoned, left to die — with a 21st century docent guiding us was fun. Maybe that’s all it had to be. Too long.

4. A Stone’s Throw by Lynn Nottage — Village woman makes the choice to believe in a stranger’s love, overriding her own good sense. He disappears. She’s condemned to die by stoning. Her horrified friend presses her to run away.

5. Red Again by Chiori Miyagawa — Future meets past as the dead Antigone in Hades reads about our world in unfinished books that update continuously while her sister, who chose life over an ideal cause to die for, lives the catastrophes Antigone reads….

Profile Theatre’s ‘The Antigone Project.’

Sophocles’s Antigone, one of his earliest plays, is a ham-fisted Tarantino extravaganza that accelerates to cataclysmic catharsis. It’s a summer blockbuster, perfect for audiences looking for surly, comic-book lines flung back and forth by two-dimensional characters and death. Lots of death. Plot: Antigone tries to convince her uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes, to overlook her killed brother-turned-traitor’s attack on Thebes and to give him a proper burial. Uncle won’t relent so it all ends in tears death.

When I lived in Greece during Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, all hell broke in America over this misuse of power — an older male superior over a younger bimbo. Greece laughed at us, pointing to her own prime minister who on television exited planes with his hand held up to help his young bimbo mistress down the stairs, his American wife left at home. The two cultures could not understand what the other culture saw, felt, reacted to.

Ditto Antigone. Greeks forged a kind of hyper-realistic drama that hinges on capturing character in depth. We’ve been practicing this ability for as long as we’ve gathered with our Greek friends for gossip; greeting the coffee klatch with Pion thavoume simera?”  (“Who are we burying today?) We bury our friends and enemies with insightful malicious character assassination, we psychoanalyze, we spill our guts. And then we write a play about it. (Something we never do is ostracize those we gossip about; they still remain within the family.)

The difference between a gathering of Greek friends in Athens and a gathering of American friends here is the difference between 4Chan and Facebook. Like 4Chan, Greeks will rip you apart if you’re emotionally insincere, articulate-but-stupid, spineless.

Greeks read Antigone and say stuff like “Oh Gods, Antigone is just like my friend Sophia! Did I tell you the shit she pulled last week in public???” If you’re stupid or crazy enough to bring up earnest concerns like the misuse of power, they look at you like you’re stupid or crazy and might respond with something like “Did you read the ending??????”

To Greeks like me, Antigone is NOT about religious freedom vs. patriotic duty. Neither is it about the non-rights of women or any other politically correct issue bandied about by bland, bored theatergoers today. It’s a power struggle between two intransigents: The dim blustering uncle Creon trying to make Thebes “Great Again” and his shrill niece, Antigone, who acts out, threatening his power by taking a martyred stand toward her traitorous brother who was just killed attacking his own homeland.

The Antigone Project’s ‘A Stone’s Throw.’

The Antigone Project basically stuck to cliches of Family vs. State or the struggle of Women against misogynist patriarchy. But once I accepted that these mini-plays provide a lens into baby boomer idealism, sentimentality and earnestness, I relaxed and enjoyed the acting in Nottage’s fourth skit, set in an African village, even though it hit me over the head with those Antigone high school themes of unjust man-made laws. Maybe because there was more than just Issues on stage. There was character development. Even the guy had me wondering whether he really was a cad or merely a simple scared villager.

Nowhere in The Antigone Project did I find my Creon: The stupid, money-obsessed leader of Thebes who bullies the entire city (the chorus) into submissive agreement with him, who thinks that all those opposed are on the take. Sophocles’s central character is as hateful as the Donald is to over half of the voters in this country. Vicious and myopic, he won’t listen to reason, he thinks he knows better than the gods/universe/fate, and his closed mind won’t let him see the consequences of his actions.

Pit him against a young Jane Fonda in Hanoi, a shrill two-dimensional mouthpiece for political correctness or incorrectness and you have… Fire! Someone’s gonna die! In fact, a LOT of someones are gonna die. Horribly. Worse than we can actually show on stage. I missed that horror in The Antigone Project.

Iphigenia for Idealists

Euripides wrote two plays about Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, inheritor to the Curse on the house of Atreus.

The first, Iphigenia at Tauris, places the heroine on the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula — far from Greece, among the barbarians. The second, Iphigenia at Aulis, takes place 20 or so years earlier, at the launching of the 1,000 ships off to sack Troy. Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to appease the goddess, Artemis, and stir the winds to launch those boats.

Iphigenia at Aulis is not a sentimental pavanne to an almost dead princess. It is not about a father torn between his duty to the State and his love for his child. It is about an apple (Iphigenia) that has not fallen far from the tree (Agamemnon). It is about a man and a girl so far outside our ken of understanding — self-sacrifice for the good of the many — that even today, people like Edward Snowden make us reel or, in mental self-defense, turn them into monsters because we know, consciously or not, that we are incapable of making those same sacrifices/decisions under those same conditions. Most of us can only assimilate Menelaus or Clytemnestra’s points of view about Agamemnon.

Shaking the Tree’s October 2016 production of Iphigenia at Aulis, adapted by contemporary Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, focuses on sentimental, liberal-wimp preachiness. Added are scenes of domesticity and innocence: The princess, Iphigenia, giggling with her friends, wide-eyed that she’s scored a boyfriend cum husband like Achilles the noble warrior, unaware that it’s all a ruse. A lot of time is devoted to these added touches, not present in Euripides, while O’Brien cuts lines that make Iphigenia the author of her own fate rather than a hapless victim of war fever and ego. For example, O’Brien downplays the scene (or omits it entirely, because I don’t remember it) in which Iphigenia admonishes her mother, Clytemnestra, to not punish her father and to realize that she will be renowned for saving Greece from future sackings by the barbarians with her own self-sacrifice.

Matthew Kerrigan as an oracle in Shaking the Tree’s ‘Iphigenia.’

O’Brien also changed the ending for the worse. Euripides’s alleged ending is fun: the messenger comes to report to the mother that the deed was done but that the girl was miraculously saved, swapped out for a deer by the goddess Artemis. And Clytemnestra retorts – “Liar!”

Then, Agamemnon swaggers into the tent, proclaims to his wife as if in collusion with the messenger, “Have you heard the great news? Our daughter was saved! Now go home and take care of the other children while I go sack Troy!” END OF PLAY.

Seen only as a deus ex machina to a non-Greek viewer, to a Greek, the ending also slathers delicious koutoponoiria — a Greek word meaning stupid cunning. You just know that it’s going to take more than a high-powered Los Angeles divorce lawyer to slake Clytemnestra’s anger toward her husband (and his stupid-cunning).

Unfortunately, Edna O’Brien appends to Euripides’s ending a spoiler from Aristophanes’s Agamemnon. It becomes a rude girl, antiwar script that earnestly tries to show that the bad warmongers get their just deserts, but loses the spine-freezing thud of Euripides’s sudden ending. It gives away too much and unconvincingly replaces the Greek unflinching realism with late 20th century boomer idealism.

Iphigenia for Ironists

I finally came close to a Greek experience of an American production of a Greek play last weekend when Orphic theater, founded in late 2015 by Andrew Wardenaar, staged the tightest, most intense, best rehearsed/acted/directed staged reading of a script I’ve ever seen/heard: Iphigenia 3.0 ,  Brian Kettler’s adaptation of Euripides’s Iphigenia at Tauris, (borrowing also from Iphigenia at Aulis to fill in the story we’ve missed). Apart from an obviously smart founder, writer, cast and crew, the show benefited from work ethic. Wardenaar informed the audience that it took a year and a half to get to this debut staged reading in front of an audience! Bravo, for the audacity and fortitude to put forth not only a blazing (pre) production, but also a whole ‘nuther level of role-model here in PDX.

Btw, Orphic is not only newly founded, the members and team are very young. And the audience demographic made my heart go pitter-pat. I was among the older. Twenty- and thirty-somethings littered the place. Probably the venue, Shout House, under the Hawthorne bridge on the inner east side, had something to do with it as well. The vibe is tingly-alive, not sterile. Theater might have an exciting future!

At the end of Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, the goddess Artemis whisked away Iphigenia faster than you can say deus ex machina, just as her daddy’s knife reached her throat to slice it open. In Euripides’s Iphigenia at Tauris, Iphigenia must repay Artemis for saving her life by preparing humans for sacrifice at the temple of Artemis in Tauris. But Iphigenia is not a shrill fishwifey Antigone. She understands why she was sacrificed but still deals with the ambivalence of loving and hating daddy for his deed. She feels sorry for the humans she prepares for death. Athena as deus ex machina in this early play feels… well, early. And clumsy.

The closest thing to a contemporary deus ex machina is today’s alternate endings. Kettler cleverly used them in Iphigenia 3.0 to make it clear that, like the ancient Greeks, 21st century audiences see right through fake, idealistic happy endings.

What Orphic also got was NOT shying away from graphic violence. Makes sense, given kids who grew up with Tarantino movies. And while the script needs tightening, it was surprising both how organic and non-stylized it felt and how fast it mostly moved, staying focused on the action.

Orphic playwright Brian Kettler.

Still, Kettler’s irony-laden script is not Greek. But then, he’s a millennial and millennials grew up with irony. How else do you deal with a world as fucked up the one they’re inheriting from the baby boomers? Irony deflects emotion. The Greeks never ducked it. And I never felt Iphigenia’s child-killing anger at her murdering daddy, or her Elektra need for daddy, or even a sincere homesickness. Oddly, this never bothered me because in contrast to my detached bored ruminating in other American productions of Greek plays, here I was constantly clenching my gut, mentally prepared for the next gruesome horror, while simultaneously waiting to bust it with inappropriate guffaws.

Avoiding Self-knowledge

I love Greek plays because they are the stuff of the Dark Web. When’s the last time you parsed Pederasty among your theater-going friends? Pelops didn’t curse (the house of) Laius, father of Oedipus, because he fucked Pelops’s young son and then killed him. Pelops cursed Laius because Laius was a bad guest! Because killing his son was bad behavior toward the house host who gave sanctuary to the guest! CAN YOU SAY “A ROUND OF HUBRIS FOR THE ENTIRE FUCKING HOUSE??? — I’M BUYING!!!”

BTW, hubris is an obsessive theme with Greeks. We’re full of it, constantly searching to pick it out of ourselves — like lice. And then we write plays about it.

I think American productions miss the blood, guts and darkness of Greek myths and plays because they’re not honest about human flaws. They’re not honest because Americans don’t know themselves. Americans don’t know themselves because up until the Millennial generation, we’ve been relatively protected and happy, able to point fingers at others and paint pretty pictures with idealism. Our idealism keeps us from acknowledging that reality is not pretty. So naturally our interpretations and adaptations are different from Greeks’.

We intellectualize (as Shaking the Tree did), idealize (Profile) or ironize (Orphic) these horrific stories, because creepy or stupid characters like Oedipus or Antigone or Creon or Agamemnon or Iphigenia disgust or scare the hell out of us, if we can see them at all for what they really are: some part of us.

Most Greek play productions I’ve seen in Portland, including adaptations, have more resembled the circumspect group-think hugbox of Facebook than the unmitigated, often brilliant, raw of 4-chan. What makes them tolerable, unlike most classical music concerts in Portland (my primary milieu), is that these theater productions are decently rehearsed with thoughtful interpretations (even if I don’t agree with them) and usually include several gifted performances.

I wonder if the country’s post-Boomer decline, which began in the early ‘70s and has accelerated into Trumpian depths, will bring the theater created by those who grew up in these troubled times closer to the ancient Greeks’ darker, more realistic (and more entertaining) visions. I LOVED Orphic and Kettler’s Iphigenia 3.0, I’ll be back for more because I had a breathless, brutal time!! I’m also looking forward to the romantic, acerbic, witty Portland composer Christopher Corbell’s upcoming opera based on Antigone to follow his successful Viva’s Holiday.

If they get it wrong, I’ll kill them and feed them to their parents for dinner.

Portland pianist and writer Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch. 

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